I'm old enough to remember when "Made in Japan" was an insult. As a child, I saw that phrase on only the cheapest or craziest toyssome stamped out of tin and cupped together by a tab with a fiendish edge, some molded from a distinctively smooth, brittle plastic. The latter included a wind-up bunny on wheels that my father brought home one day: my favorite toy, ever. (It came with a double-barreled dart gun that I seldom used, partly because I loved the bunny too much to shoot it, and partly because the suction-cup darts didn't stick to that kind of plastic in the first place.)
Here's how God makes audiophiles: He starts with several million blank brain cells, then programs each one, individually, to function as either a love for one single aspect of music reproduction or a hatred for another. There are over a thousand such cellsfar too many to list herebut theologians and audio reviewers have worked together to compile this list of the Top 20, which, just like real life, contains a little more love than hate:
Stereo Review, the world's most popular audio magazine during most of its time on Earth, was a common target of derision from the hobby's so-called high-end press, not least of all from me. We criticized its nerdy, boring prose, its uniformly positive reviews, and, most of all, its shameless pimping of the notions that measurements reveal all there is to know about a component, and that all competently engineered components sound equally fine.
I can't help wondering: how did the mainstream audio press, cheered Dynaco and Marantz and McIntosh and Quad for switching to transistors a couple of generations ago, greet the first tube-revival products from Audio Research and the like? What was the reaction when moving-coil cartridge technology, considered all but dead by the early 1970s, became the perfectionist hi-fi norm just a few years later? And what would the same people make of the fact that a high-mass, transcription-length pickup armwith interchangeable pickup heads, no lessis one of the most recommendable phono products of 2008? The mind boggles.
The subject comes up every now and then: Audio reviewers don't write nearly enough negative reviews. One old attention-seeker on Audio Asylum went so far as to characterize Stereophile and our would-be competitors as "happy face" magazines—a joke in which he seemed to take tremendous pride—simply because we hand out a lot of As and Bs. By that logic, assuming that a certain percentage of underachievers is inevitable in any population, our schools aren't handing out nearly enough Fs. (I have a suggestion for where they can begin.)
Today, as every Saturday, I brought my daughter to the stables where she has her riding lessons. But this time was different. As we pulled up the long gravel driveway, we found ourselves dodging a riderless horse, moving at a trot across our path. It turned out that the very cold weather had caused a latch to malfunction—"gate won't close, railing's froze"—and five horses had gotten loose.
I'm old enough to remember my family's first table radio that was made out of plastic. It was cream-colored, and it sat on the rearmost edge of our kitchen table: a less-than-timeless design in its own right, destined to be discarded at the end of one era and treasured again at the dawn of another, for more or less the same reason. But in 1958, a cream-colored plastic radio looked fresh, clean, and right, and its cheap wooden predecessor seemed dowdy and sad by comparison. That would all change in later years, of course. Then it would all change again.
On weekends, I play guitar in a string band whose membership varies between two and five members, depending on the location of the job and the amount of pay offered. We're reasonably good at picking and singing, but we lack the originality that would make someone want to buy our albums, which is why we haven't made them. Our little group is McDonald's, not Le Circe or even Applebee's, and I'm at peace with that.
Whenever my family and I travel together, I catch a glimpse of how the human mind works. Immediately after checking into our hotel, my wife goes to work distributing the contents of our suitcases among the room's various cabinets, closets, and drawers. Then, the next morning, I discover the location of my underpants heuristically: seeking without knowing, in the hope that some newly learned pattern will be imprinted on my brain. Thus do I earn the luxury of complacence: Every morning thereafter, my things are right where I know they should be.
Is it my imagination, or has the low-power tube movement of the last 15 years gone hand in hand with a renewed interest in moving-coil step-up transformers? Trannies remain misunderstood or ignored by most of the audio press—requests for review samples continue to be met with genial shock, rather like tourism in the Budapest of the 1990s—but enthusiasm for the practice seems only to grow. That leaves me to wonder: Did the unquestioning use of active pre-preamps for so many years grow out of the same bad attitude that gave us all those awful-sounding high-power amps and low-sensitivity loudspeakers? You know the mindset: Parts are cheap. Gain is free. Do it because you can...